It was the no-summer summer. Nobody had to work so we ate and drank in the streets. We shared stories and videos of mob violence, food shortages, burning buildings, black men beaten or shot to death. The climate changed in faraway places. The Americans ended the endless war. A sleepwalking woman attempted her former commute and stepped in front of a high-speed train. At the Empty Olympics in Tokyo, athletes quit and we were so happy for them. A billion animals died in one Australian fire. The air was allegedly full of bad particles.
A Jew dies. He ascends to Heaven. At the pearly gates, he is introduced to St. Peter.
“We have one entry requirement for Jews,” St. Peter says. “To get in, you need to tell a joke that makes God laugh.”
The Jew is confused.
“And if God doesn’t laugh, you stay in Purgatory until you can think of a joke that makes God laugh.”
“Can I have some time to think about it?” the Jew says.
“Don’t tell that one,” St. Peter says. “He’s heard it before.”
So the Jew sits on a cloud outside the gates and thinks for a while. When he’s ready, he tells St. Peter, and St. Peter summons God to the gates to hear the Jew’s joke.
“What have you got for me?” God says.
“Well —” the Jew says. Then he tells a long and involved joke about the Holocaust.
God doesn’t laugh. He looks shocked.
“That wasn’t funny,” God says. “That’s just awful. All those poor people.”
“Well,” the Jew says, to God, “I guess you had to be there.”
So: here we are, on Earth, specifically London, right now. It is a Sunday morning and the no-summer summer of 2021 has slipped into fall. Everything is in short supply. We have all given up on shopping lists. I do not remember the last time we had any weather.
Last night, an Australian girl told me that time itself felt different to her.
“Like even how I move through reality,” she said. “It used to feel staccato. Like moments. Now it feels like a wash.”
It was 4 a.m. and we were on the fire escape of the warehouse she lives in, smoking.
“What do you mean?” I said. I was coming down off a Vyvanse. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Like I’m asleep in the back seat of a car. And every so often I wake up and see a road sign, and think o, I must be here. Then I fall back asleep.”
I hear about a staff member at Marylebone Underground Station who, after twenty-odd years on the job, goes insane and begins to use the intercom system to disseminate his apocalyptic agenda, reading passages of Dante, Blake, Milton in place of the usual messages about masks, delays, suspensions in service.
“I get it,” a friend tells me, after the anecdote is related to us. “You go under the ground and sit in the dark for an unclear amount of time. You feel movement but don’t actually see any for yourself. Then you ride an escalator into the light and you are somewhere else entirely. How could you watch people experience that all day without cracking?”
Personally, I often dream I am on an endless series of connecting trains, heading toward an unfixed destination.
“In Freud,” another friend, who also rides trains while asleep, says, “the train is symbolic of death. The journey across the Styx, into the unknown, etc.”
Another friend tells me the root of “confused” is “fused with,” meaning putting two unconnected things together.
The rich leave the planet for fifteen minutes at a time.
We all become increasingly convinced by street preachers.
In Venice, Harry and I run into a girl he used to fuck. He feels awkward because he hasn’t told her that he has a girlfriend now. Between her starters and mains she comes over to the table where we are drinking.
“We’re going to this party later,” she says, gesturing at her friends. “I’ll text you.”
“Sounds fun,” I say. Harry kicks me under the table.
“What do you do?” she says, to me.
“I’m a writer,” I say.
“What are you working on?”
“A Vietnam War novel,” I say, which is what I say when I can’t be bothered to explain.
“But gay,” Harry says.
“Yeah. Like Brokeback Mountain,” I say, “but in Vietnam.”
“Sounds interesting,” she says.
“A G.I. falls in love with a Viet Cong,” I say, “but they can never be together.”
“Are you gay?” she says, the way Italians do.
“He is,” Harry says.
She goes back to her meal. We get the bill and leave hastily.
On the way to another bar, Harry puts on a potentially Vietnamese accent and says, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”
We are hysterical. We repeat it for the rest of the night.
As for me, I go on dates that go nowhere. A girl who was fired from the circus for sleeping on the job. A girl who had recently discovered that her doctor boyfriend of three years had lied about being a doctor, had two other secret girlfriends, had committed faux malpractice by taking her on a date to a morgue after-hours. A girl who grew up with a cemetery in her garden and buried dead frogs in it amongst the hundred-year-old human graves. A girl who had been a child Christian pop star. A girl who sends me pictures of herself naked, tied to a chair, her body covered in meticulous wounds inflicted by a Palestinian artist who mixes blood in with his oils. A girl who threatens me at length with an expensive Japanese knife. How could I bring a child into this world, they often say, then we fuck raw. The news says that nobody is having sex right now. I contract a disease and learn to play dumb.
Speaking of, I was about to kiss this one girl by the Thames, in the last locked-down winter, with snow falling. She knew I was going to kiss her. But we were playing the game: how long can we make the conversation last before that happens.
This fucked up guy came up to us and asked for money.
“I hope I’m not interrupting something,” he said, in a rude and sarcastic voice.
“You know,” the girl said, handing him a crumpled £5 note, gesturing at the snow, “the Eskimo have over a hundred ways to say ‘fuck off.’”
I found that very charming. I hope she’s reading this.
Another thing she told me: on a long enough timeline, old flames are just cold ashes caught in wind, and every store is a pop-up.
I am fifteen. I haven’t fucked, but Harry and Millie have. Millie’s parents go away so she invites me and Harry and Jacquetta to spend the night. We shoplift alcohol, hop the train.
Millie meets me and Harry and Jacquetta at the station. Harry and I perform for the girls, tell the Pope Joke, making sure it takes as long as possible.
“That punchline wasn’t worth it,” the girls say.
But they laugh and laugh the whole time.
Here’s the joke. The Pope is in America. He is doing a papal tour of the United States. He does a Vegas residency. When this finishes, the next stop is Los Angeles.
The Pope typically travels in the Popemobile, a high-security, bulletproof luxury car. But the Popemobile is back at the Vatican having work done. So instead, the Pope is being driven in a limousine, by a new, American driver.
On the morning the Pope is due to travel to Los Angeles, the driver goes up to the Pope’s hotel room and knocks for him. The Pope opens the hotel room door. He is wearing the full papal getup — hat and all — as he has an engagement in Los Angeles that afternoon.
“Your Holiness,” the driver says, “I am your driver, and your car is ready.”
“Thank you,” the Pope says. Then he pauses for a moment. He looks troubled but excited, as if there is something he wants to say. The driver notices.
“Is there anything I can help with?” the driver says.
“Actually,” the Pope says, “there is.”
“What is it?” the driver says.
“Before I was Pope — when I was a Cardinal, and before that — I loved to drive. Driving was my great joy. Aside from God, it is my one true love. But now I am Pope, I am never allowed to drive. Instead I am driven everywhere in the Popemobile. It is very, very sad. Perhaps the great sadness of my life.”
The driver agrees that it is sad, but reluctantly. He knows what is coming.
“So my one request to you,” the Pope says, “is that you allow me to drive the limousine from here to Los Angeles.”
“Your Holiness,” the driver says, “I can’t do that. I will lose my job.”
“I beg of you,” the Pope says, “honor my request. I will make it worth your while. Eternal life. Riches. Whatever you want can be yours.”
The driver thinks for a moment.
“The Vatican is the richest organization in the world,” the Pope says, “and nobody will ever find out.”
“Alright,” the driver says, “but please, your Holiness, do not violate any traffic rules. Don’t run lights or stop signs. Drive sensibly. Do not speed.”
The Pope grins a menacing grin.
“Of course,” the Pope says.
The girls on the nowhere dates all listen to podcasts that say the future had been killed by seemingly abstract things.
The boys I am friends with all listen to podcasts by people who haven’t yet heard the future is dead. On the boy podcasts the talk is of interplanetary colonization, the power of batteries. The hunting of rewilded animals.
I have attempted to listen to both, but don’t have the attention span for either, though I appreciate having the ability to pause a person mid-sentence.
We have all lost our sense of smell, taste. The share prices of food delivery services have skyrocketed. I speculate on perfume, and plagiarize wherever possible.
I steal a novel idea from a Reddit comment. The novel is about a young man and his best friend. The young man is me. The best friend is Harry, my real best friend.
The novel opens with us having so much fun. We have been friends our whole childhood. We do not need anyone else. We are young and drunk and feel invincible.
We decide to drive Harry’s car fast down country roads. Harry sees a deer and swerves to avoid it.
I wake up in the hospital. I am informed that Harry turned into an ash tree, died in the crash. I was lucky to survive.
I am crushed by grief. I recover from my injuries, though I retain a limp from where my femur was shattered.
Alone, I rebuild my life. I spend years moving between bleak jobs and bleaker houses in London. I miss my best friend so much.
One day I see a very beautiful girl sitting alone under a tree. The day is windy and I see her blonde hair in the wind, the deep blue of her coat. I go introduce myself and see the deeper blue of her eyes.
We fall in love. She has lost someone, too. Slowly we learn to let go of our grief together.
We find okay jobs: not much, but enough. Years pass. Not everything is perfect. But we make it work.
We move to the countryside. She learns she is pregnant. We get married. I am so happy. We have a beautiful daughter. Then we have a beautiful son.
When Jacquetta and I were in love, we would often spoil social situations by telling the Pope Joke together. But eventually she laughed less and less, until she stopped telling it with me, and just became another person who found the Pope Joke annoying.
Here’s the thing: you can’t start telling new jokes just because people have gotten bored of your old ones!
I give up on a novel about a girl who changes universities because her father is dying, and she needs to be near him to care for him.
She falls in with a group of friends who are obsessed with a videotape of an episode of an old sitcom.
They are obsessed with the videotape because every time they watch it, it changes, as if by magic. The story always stays the same, but details are different: it is raining, or a character is wearing a deer costume, or affecting a bad French accent.
The friends have various theories about why this is — the most compelling being that the tape is a link to parallel universes, a new one produced every time the sitcom’s showrunners made a creative decision.
The girl becomes obsessed with the tape, too, and falls in love with one of the boys, though he has a girlfriend. The girl and the boy meet in secret to fuck and watch the tape. But instead of the episode playing in full, the tape gets stuck in a loop, and the title credits just spiral over and over, punctuated by VHS snowstorm.
The boy feels guilty. He drives his girlfriend into the forest to come clean. They argue. He turns into an ash tree. He dies in the crash.
The girl is heartbroken. The girl falls out with the remaining friends, who blame her for the boy’s death. The tape is lost, too.
The girl’s father finally dies. She graduates alone.
Years later she meets with one of the friends, ostensibly to catch up, but really to speculate about where the tape might be. They agree, sadly, that it was likely incinerated in the crash.
When Millie and Jacquetta are out of the room, Harry and I steal vodka from Millie’s parents and pour it into the stolen cider cans so the girls get drunk faster. Nobody has told us yet that you are not meant to do this.
By midnight there is a layer of frost on the garden trampoline.
I climb onto it and tell Jacquetta to as well. We jump and the frost shatters.
I push her so she falls over.
Then I let myself fall beside her.
The night is clear and behind the clouds our breathing makes, we can see stars. I pretend I don’t know what they are called so she will name them for me. She is so thin and shivering. I prop myself up on my elbow and kiss her and wow wow wow wow wow.
We are middle aged now, my wife and me. We move to a larger house in a deeper part of the countryside. In the garden is an ash tree. Outside, at night, having a rare and secret cigarette, I notice something strange about the ash tree: it seems to, occasionally, become two-dimensional.
But when I walk up to it, it’s regular.
The ash tree bothers me. I continue my life, but begin to obsess over it. Sometimes the tree is flat — like a poorly-rendered object in a video game — and sometimes it is fractal, somehow four-dimensional, growing constantly and visibly, and reaching out to me, and at the center of it there is some kind of strange blackness that’s a deeper black than anything I have seen before.
Slowly my obsession with the ash tree takes over my life. I stop going to work. I lose my job. I ignore my beautiful wife and my beautiful daughter and my beautiful son. I sit in the garden all day, staring at the deep black thing at the center of the tree.
My wife and children become increasingly concerned. I am committed to and then discharged from a mental hospital. Doctors try and break the spell. A hypnotist is hired. But I cannot help returning to the tree. I cannot keep away from the deep black thing at the center of it. I sit out there day and night. The black thing grows and grows, until it’s almost all I can see.
And one day I fall into it. The black thing.
I’m in the black thing for a while.
Or, it feels like a while, but it also feels like no time at all.
I wake up in a hospital. I slip in and out of consciousness. When awake, I beg to see my wife, my children. When asleep, memories of my life come to me, discordant and scattered.
One day, in the hospital, I have the strength to look down at my body. It is the body of a young man. I panic. How old am I, I ask a nurse. What year is it.
2013, she says. You are nineteen years old.
I ask her about my wife, my children. You’re not married, she says. You were in a car crash.
You’ve just woken up from a coma. You are very lucky to be alive.
It eventually becomes clear that my whole life — since the car crash in which Harry died — has been a dream. None of it was real.
My beautiful daughter, my beautiful son. My beautiful wife. None of them real.
I have nothing to live for anymore. I see the window from my hospital bed. It looks like it opens. So I decide to throw myself out of it.
In the no-summer, I get on heroin then off again. In New York friends and friends of friends overdose, die. In London, while we are all meant to stay home, the police seize vast amounts of cocaine and the price skyrockets. Benzos become cheaper than ever. When we are told to leave our homes, cocaine gets cheap again. We share conspiracy theories. Fentanyl is China’s revenge for the Opium Wars. Mid-century is out. We start decorating our homes and restaurants and bars in the Empire style. People say that it’s the twenties again, that all the Americans are moving to Paris. But none of them ever seem to actually arrive.
So they go downstairs to where the limousine is waiting. The driver hands the Pope the keys, and the Pope, in his big Pope hat and dress, gets into the driver’s seat. The driver gets into the back of the limousine, invisible behind the blacked-out windows.
As soon as the car reaches the highway, the Pope breaks his promise. He puts his foot to the floor. The limousine does 90, then 100, then 110. The driver grips the armrest in terror.
They pass a cop car. The cop sees the speeding limousine. He starts his engine and gives chase.
The cop catches up. He flicks the siren on and off. The Pope pulls over.
The cop gets out of his car. He walks over to the limousine, stationary now on the shoulder of the highway, and knocks on the window.
In the backseat, the limousine driver is terrified.
I used to believe that for my little stories to feel real to the reader, they had to be staccato: structured, fixed in time, a list of moments.
I remember reading an essay by someone saying that because of capitalism, or something, we cannot imagine fictions that exist past “a list of real moments, fixed in time.” Like a shopping list.
Now I’m less sure.
I think, now, I want my stories to feel like being asleep in the back of a car, waking briefly, and thinking: o, I must be here. Then falling back asleep.
I couldn’t tell you the last time I made a shopping list.
A man dies. He wakes, a waiting room. St. Peter — extremely tired — tells the man to take a ticket and a seat. There are other dead people there. The dead seem bored and restless. Behind St. Peter’s desk, there is a staircase made of clouds and bathed in golden light, going up somewhere, and also a disgusting-looking escalator which leads down somewhere dark.
Eventually the dead man’s number comes up on the screen so he goes up to the desk. God comes out to meet him. He is disheveled, unshaven. He has bags under his eyes. He smells of cigarettes.
“I am sorry for the wait,” God says. “I am so burnt out. I’m really tired. I haven’t had time to pay much attention. You were good down there, yeah?”
“I’m not sure it’s for me to say,” the man says, “but yes. I was a good Christian. I loved my neighbor. I was kind. I made some mistakes, of course, but I think that I left the world a better place than it was when I came into it.”
God doesn’t seem to be listening. He is looking around the waiting room. He rubs his palms against his temples and then wipes his bloodshot eyes.
“Yeah, cool,” God says. “Listen, you didn’t do any gay shit did you?”
The man pauses. He isn’t sure what to say.
“Well, I —”
“Yeah,” God says, “down there, pal.”
I see Jacquetta sometimes still, in Soho coincidences, on medium terms. In her face and the bend of her elbow are the dropout futures we spent years talking about. Probably in mine for her, too. But I don’t ask, and it goes unsaid.
Most recently, when I saw her, she told me: the purpose of fiction is not to manifest the incomplete.
I ask another friend if time feels different to her. We are in the BFI bar on the South Bank. She is a writer too. But while I was making my staccato and structured stories, she was making stories that sat outside of time entirely. A series of beautiful images.
“There wasn’t even a summer,” she says. “Of course it feels different. I feel as if I’ve fallen out of place.”
I ask her if she’s changed what she’s writing.
“Yeah,” she says. “I just want to do things with plots now. I love competent stories. I’ve gone trad. As a reaction to time being different, maybe.”
I tell her that’s so funny. I feel the same but I am doing the opposite. We have swapped entirely.
In the fact-checked news, a cop dies then does not die from accidental fentanyl exposure. The Taliban hang then do not hang an American soldier from a suspended helicopter. Ghislaine Maxwell appears at a fast-food chain, until she doesn’t. The North Koreans sometimes have missiles.
I speak to my friends in jokes, ironies, yeses when people ask reallys. I take to issuing my own corrections. People DM my Twitter saying: I don’t know if you’re joking, but —
I give up on a novel about a girl who involuntarily throws up everything she eats. In the sick, every time, is a beautiful vomit-slicked pearl. As if she’s part oyster.
I give up on a novel about a girl who visits an old writer by the sea. He was in love with her dead mother, but it was unrequited. When the old man dies, he leaves the girl his slowly eroding house. It is full of half-finished stories.
I give up on a novel about the death of a charismatic publisher. A cohort of his students who have not seen each other in years attend his funeral, stay in his home after. Together they remember their teacher, remember how to write. The reader pieces together the students’ stories into some greater, more meaningful narrative.
I give up on a novel about the town I grew up in, the lives of the people there. But with an algorithm as a narrator, rather than a human.
All of these have the same title: The Complete. So the cover says, “The Complete Gabriel Smith.” A little joke.
But, in hindsight, a funnier title would have been The Incomplete.
The Pope rolls down the limousine window when the cop knocks on it. The cop sees the Pope sitting there, in his Pope dress and big Pope hat, his Pope hands at ten and two.
The cop looks at the Pope. He almost says something. Then he doesn’t. He just makes a hand gesture for the Pope to stay put. Then he walks back to his cop car, and sits back down, and gets on the radio to his superior officer.
“Chhhhk,” the cop says. “I’ve just pulled over someone going 110 on the highway. Over.”
“Chhhhk,” the superior officer says. “So arrest them. Over.”
“Chhhhk. I think it’s someone famous. I’m not sure what to do. Over.”
“Chhhhk. That’s great. It’ll be great publicity. Is it an athlete? A pop star? Over.”
“Chhhhk. More famous than that. Over.”
“Chhhhk. A politician? Who? Over.”
“Chhhhk. No,” says the cop. “Even more famous. Over.”
“Chhhhk. More famous?” the superior says. “Just tell me. Over.”
“Chhhhk. Well,” says the cop, “I think I’ve just pulled God over. Over.”
“Chhhhk. You’ve pulled over God? What? Over.”
“Chhhhk. Yes, I think I’ve pulled God over. Over.”
“Chhhhk. Have you gone mad? Why do you think you’ve pulled over God?” the superior officer says. “Over.”
“Chhhhk. Well,” the cop says, “his limousine is driven by the Pope.”
That’s the punchline!
Gordon Lish said that for writing to be interesting, each sentence has to wholly reject the preceding one. A neat trick.
“Of course,” a writer friend says, “if you extrapolate that rule to the length of a short story or a novel, the shape you get is a spiral. Something constantly folding in on itself.”
“That’s how a joke is structured,” a comedian friend says. “A premise, and then a surprise. Something that’s the opposite of the premise, that doesn’t fit with it at all. So much the opposite that it’s the same thing. But new.”
“The spiral is the shape of life,” another friend tells me. “Moving forward in time, but constantly trapped by and falling backward into memory. Like Sans Soleil. Or Vertigo.”
“The spiral is everywhere in the more mathematical arts,” my grandmother says. “Music, painting. The Fibonacci sequence. The golden ratio. The fractal growth of plants and trees.”
The current of memory is getting stronger. Boats against it, etc. But I don’t know anyone who knows what it is that we’re rowing toward.
On Greek Street, I watch a middle-aged man undress completely, then wrestle another middle-aged man, also naked, their dicks right-angle retracted in the cold.
Earlier in the night, in the smoking area of Trisha’s, the middle-aged man tells Harry and me about his new, second wife.
“You think you’ll never fall in love again,” the man says. “That’s bullshit.”
“Right,” Harry says.
Later in the night, waiting for a short-supply Uber, a drunk Egyptian man invites me and Harry to a brothel.
“You guys are best friends,” he says, once we decline. “I can see it! Don’t let that go.”
“Chhhhk. Roger that,” I say. “Over.”
One can imagine, using Lish’s rule, a story that’s a mathematically perfect spiral. Forward in time, and backward in memory, perfectly synchronized.
Whether imagining something means it exists is another question entirely.
I like to think it does.
I promised myself I would never write about writing. So self-indulgent. Lol!
I try to leave my hospital bed to throw myself out the window. But I am so weak I collapse.
The nurse asks what I was trying to do. I tell her about the dream. That I have lost my best friend in the car crash, and my wife, and my children. That I have lived a whole life and it has disappeared. And now I am alone. Everything I have ever loved.
Your best friend isn’t dead, the nurse says.
He’s in the next ward over. He’s going to make it.
At first I do not believe her. I have lived decades without him. I have dealt with the grief.
But then, there he is, at my bedside, and we hold each other while I cry for all of it.
I rebuild my life. I move between bleak jobs and bleaker houses in London. I have my best friend back, but I am haunted by memories of my wife, my children. It is all I can do not to kill myself.
I do not want to have to live another whole lifetime without her.
Then, one day, walking alone in a park, I see a flash of blonde hair from behind a tree, caught in the wind. The sleeve of a deep blue coat. Perhaps the deeper blue of her eyes.
That would be where the novel ends.
And so we wait it out. The endless nodding, the slip of it all. The cemetery frogs, the wet market of the soul. The evening applause and the midnight alleyoop. The live streams of the dead. A skyful of St. Peters, eyes wet with tears.
At the height of it, after the no-family Christmas, but before the New Year, a friend called me from her parents’ home, late at night.
“Christmas Purgatory,” she said, referring to the days between Christmas and 2021, The Year of Disappointment.
“I worry I’ve died. And I’m in actual Purgatory,” I said.
“Maybe,” she said. She was falling asleep on the phone. I asked her if she felt the same.
“Can I have a little time to think about it?” she said.
“Go to sleep,” I said, or maybe she said, I don’t remember, “I’m sure it’ll feel different in the morning.”
Gabriel Smith is 26 and from London. His first novel, In It, was to be published by Tyrant Books.